In his departure from this world, Rush Limbaugh, the conservative talk radio commentator who died Wednesday, Feb. 17 at age 70, bequeathed Florida two things: his $50 million mansion in Palm Beach (which presumably goes to his wife Kathryn) and the idea of Florida seceding from the union.
No doubt Kathryn will enjoy the 34,000-square foot, seven-bedroom, 12-bath palace with pool, putting green and private beach on two oceanfront acres.
But for the state that he called home since 1996 his most recent legacy was his floating the idea of secession from a United States presided over by Joe Biden. It was an idea that found receptivity among numerous Florida Republicans. (See: “No need to secede: Welcome to Florumpia!”)
Limbaugh did not specifically call for Florida to secede: he raised the idea of secession in general on Dec. 9, 2020 when a caller to his radio show asked if conservatives could ever win over Democratic cities in northern states. Limbaugh interpreted this as asking whether they could ever be won over culturally, rather than electorally.
Limbaugh said he thought the big challenge was winning over the culture rather than the votes.
“I thought you were asking me something else when you said, ‘Can we win?’” said Limbaugh to the caller. “I thought you meant: ‘Can we win the culture, can we dominate the culture?’
“I actually think that we’re trending toward secession,” he said.
“I see more and more people asking what in the world do we have in common with the people who live in, say, New York? What is there that makes us believe that there is enough of us there to even have a chance at winning New York? Especially if you’re talking about votes.”
He continued: “I see a lot of bloggers—I can’t think of names right now—a lot of bloggers have written extensively about how distant and separated and how much more separated our culture is becoming politically and that it can’t go on this way. There cannot be a peaceful coexistence of two completely different theories of life, theories of government, theories of how we manage our affairs.
“We can’t be in this dire a conflict without something giving somewhere along the way. And I know that there’s a sizable and growing sentiment for people who believe that that is where we’re headed, whether we want to or not—whether we want to go there or not,” he said. “I myself haven’t made up my mind. I still haven’t given up the idea that we are the majority and that all we have to do is find a way to unite and win.”
Limbaugh said all this when a lawsuit by the state of Texas and 17 other states—including Florida—was before the Supreme Court, seeking to overturn the election results in four key states. It was five days before the Electoral College was going to cast its votes confirming Joe Biden’s victory. Donald Trump’s claims of election fraud were threadbare, rejected by every court where they’d been heard and seemed unlikely to sway the Supreme Court but were nonetheless being loudly propagated by the president and his followers.
Limbaugh made many outrageous and extreme pronouncements during his 54-year radio career. While his constant and deliberately provocative statements had somewhat depleted the pool of available outrage, reference to secession brought more than the usual opposition and blowback.
It was on the 11th that the Supreme Court issued its ruling dismissing the Texas lawsuit. References to secession spiked, especially in Texas where the state Republican chairman, Allen West, said “Perhaps law-abiding states should bond together and form a Union of states that will abide by the Constitution.”
But that was also the day that Limbaugh backtracked. “I simply referenced what I have seen other people say about how we are incompatible, as currently divided, and that secession is something that people are speculating about,” Limbaugh said. “I am not advocating it, have not advocated, never have advocated it, and probably wouldn’t. That’s not something — 32 years — that’s not the way I’ve decided to go about handling disagreements with people on the left.”
Neither Texas nor Florida nor any other state seceded.
On Dec. 12, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-16-Ill.) tweeted: “I want to be clear: the Supreme Court is not the deep state. The case had no merit and was dispatched 9-0. There was no win here. Complaining and bellyaching is not a manly trait, it’s actually sad. Real men accept a loss with grace.”
On Jan. 6 Trump decided to vent his rage before his followers and incite them to attack the Capitol Building to overturn the election—and in the process destroy the legislative branch of government, kill its leaders and the Vice President. The effort failed.
Although he had retreated from secession, Limbaugh defended Donald Trump and his sedition: “There’s a lot of people calling for the end of violence,” he said the day after the insurrection. “A lot of conservatives, social media saying any violence, any aggression at all, is unacceptable—regardless of the circumstances. I’m glad Sam Adams, Thomas Paine, the actual Tea Party guys, the men at Lexington and Concord, didn’t feel that way.”
The Capitol attack and the subsequent impeachment of Donald Trump seem to have lanced the boil of hatred, prejudice and rage that was swelling with the encouragement of Trump and Limbaugh. The smashed glass and dead police and rioters appear to have brought home to Trumpers and dittoheads the dangers and reality of violence and insurrection—and that rhetoric has repercussions.
Then, Mother Nature and climate change drove home the point: after all the anti-government rhetoric about going it alone and secession, the deep freeze crushing Texas has made clear that the Lone Star State needs the rest of the nation to survive in a modern, technological world with running water and reliable electricity.
The secession talk was never as strong in Florida as it was in Texas. Now, with Limbaugh gone from the American airwaves and Donald Trump banned from Twitter, sanity seems to be returning. Insurrection has been defeated and secession is not a serious notion.
In Florida Limbaugh’s legacy seems as ephemeral as the airwaves on which he broadcast and his ideas as impermanent as a passing tropical shower. His more concrete legacy lies in his palatial mansion, which is only one of many in the Sunshine State’s pricey precincts.
There are many evaluations and analyses of Rush Limbaugh being written now. There’s no denying that he created the genre of talk radio. At a time when AM radio was moribund and seemed headed to obsolescence (it couldn’t broadcast music in stereo like FM radio), Limbaugh’s torrent of words revived it and gave it a new role. It caught on and made him rich, famous and influential, inspired numerous imitators and created a right-wing mediasphere. He presented and shaped a political point of view held by millions of Americans, no matter how delusional, hateful and prejudicial it may be.
Perhaps the best summation of Limbaugh appeared in a 1999 book written by humorist Al Franken, who went on to be elected Minnesota’s junior senator.
That book was called Rush Limbaugh is a Big, Fat Idiot.
Florida Democrats are just starting to gear up for the challenges of 2022. The governorship, a Senate seat and, of course, all congressional seats are up for election.
Aside from the potential change of power, 2022 presents a chance for state Democrats to redeem themselves from the disastrous defeat of 2020.
In making their preparations, Florida Democrats can look north to Georgia where a stereotypically deeply conservative Republican stronghold voted Democratic for President and two senators.
Can the kind of work and effort that flipped Georgia blue be duplicated just south of the state line next year?
Hope, of course, springs eternal. Florida Democrats are trying to stand up, brush themselves off and regain their footing.
But getting from aspiration to actuality is a long and difficult road and the roads that run through Georgia’s clay and Florida’s sand are very different.
What adjustments need to be made? What factors were unique to 2020 and how will they change in 2022? What can Georgia teach Florida for next year?
Georgia’s march to victory
There were many factors that contributed to the Democratic victory in Georgia but some that stand out include:
There’s long been debate among historians whether history is made by individuals or vast, impersonal forces. Stacey Abrams is living proof that people make history. A woman of extraordinary intelligence, drive and achievement, she demonstrably and individually steered this quintessentially southern and tradition-bound state in a new direction.
Most Floridians first heard of Stacey Abrams in 2018 when she came within 55,000 votes of winning the Georgia governor’s race. She did this despite rampant and blatant voter suppression and a Republican Secretary of State, Brian Kemp, who oversaw the election rules even as he was running for governor. But after losing the election, instead of giving up she redoubled her efforts.
With Georgia flipping blue Abrams is now a political star but her overnight success was 10 years in the making—48 years if one starts counting from her birth. She tirelessly and relentlessly worked to increase voter registration, turn out minority communities and after her gubernatorial run, founded Fair Fight Action to oppose voter suppression. She saw the political possibilities in Georgia long before any other politician or pundit and worked to make them real. She drew up the strategy that ultimately resulted in victory.
Suburban growth and change
Atlanta has long billed itself as “the city too busy to hate.” From its earliest days it has been a commercial hub focused on business. Atlanta’s suburbs have grown exponentially and rapidly. According to the US Census Bureau, between 2010 and 2019 they went from 5.3 million people to more than 6 million, at the same time racially diversifying.
Throughout the 2020 campaign, polling repeatedly found that there was an educational divide between college-educated and non-college educated voters, with the former less favorable to Donald Trump. The nation’s suburbs, and Atlanta’s in particular, were better educated and more inclined to the Democratic Party. Also trending Democratic were educated, suburban women, to the point where Trump at a speech in October 2020 pleaded, “Suburban women, will you please like me? I saved your damn neighborhood, OK?”
His pleadings didn’t work. “For a lot of women in the state, Trump kind of pushed them to the edge,” a Georgian named Jen Jordan told Emma Green in The Atlantic magazine article, “What Just Happened in Georgia?” When the Georgia legislature considered an anti-choice bill that would have made abortions illegal once a fetal heartbeat was detected, “The heartbeat bill was the thing that made them jump.”
“After the 2016 election, it became clear that the counties north of the city of Atlanta—Cobb, Gwinnett, the upper part of Fulton—were no longer homogenous conservative strongholds,” Green wrote. As a result, “The Trumpian brand of Republican politics does not play well in Atlanta, which prides itself on low taxes and business-friendly attitudes.”
When it came to Georgia’s Senate runoff elections, “Black voters showed up at stratospheric levels and white voters did not. You saw really big shifts in heavily Black counties,” David Wasserman, an editor at the Cook Political Report was quoted saying in a Vox.com article, “Georgia went blue. Can Democrats make it happen elsewhere?”
Getting that stratospheric turnout took Stacey Abrams and Democratic activists ten years to achieve—155 years, if counted from the end of the Civil War. But it was really propelled in the last two years.
Georgia’s Black voters had turned out in 2008 and 2012 to vote for Barack Obama. Abrams attributed her 2018 loss to voter suppression but in 2020 a combination of factors propelled by grassroots activism managed to galvanize Georgia’s communities of color and propel them to the polls.
The New Georgia Project, a voting rights group also founded by Abrams, “knocked on more than 2 million doors, made more than 6.7 million calls, and sent more than 4 million texts urging people to vote ahead of the runoffs,” Nsé Ufot, chief executive officer of the group, told Vox. “A larger coalition of progressive voting groups coordinated by America Votes knocked on more than 8.5 million doors, made about 20 million phone calls, and sent over 18 million texts.”
The growth of Georgia’s ethnic populations, more accessible voter registration and grassroots mobilization combined to deliver the state to Joe Biden for president and Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock for Senate.
But there was another factor that energized Georgia voters.
Trump, of course
Say what you will of Donald Trump, he certainly drove voters to the polls—whether they loved or hated him.
The massive voter turnout around the nation was true in Georgia as well and it yielded eye-popping results. It was one of 16 states where Trump lost ground from 2016. For the first time since 1992 Georgia voted more Democratic than Florida and it was the first time since 1860 that its Laurens and Monroe counties did not vote for the statewide winner. For the first time in 40 years Cobb County supported a Democrat for president.
The urgency, the implications and the magnitude of the Trump threat powered every election in the country and led to the unprecedented turnout, the massive absentee balloting and the critical need to reach all voters, no matter their political parties. As a result, in Georgia, Joe Biden won by 11,779 votes.
What was remarkable in Georgia was that the same forces that powered voters in the presidential race didn’t let up for the Senate runoff, which ultimately gave Georgia its two Democratic senators.
Marjorie Taylor Greene and the 14th District
While Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-14-Ga.) appears to have taken Trumpist delusion and paranoia to the limits of lunacy, she is as much a part of the Georgia story as Stacey Abrams.
Greene represents Georgia’s 14th Congressional District, a combination of 11 counties northwest of Atlanta. It bears some striking resemblances to Florida’s 19th Congressional District along the Southwest Gulf coast, not least in being 85 percent white.
However, the Florida 19th has a rating of R-13 from the Cook Political Report, the bible of congressional politics, meaning it is 13 percent more likely to vote Republican than the average district. By contrast, the Georgia 14th has a rating of R-27, meaning it is twice as conservative and Republican as the 19th—which, for a Southwest Floridian, is pretty hard to imagine.
In the past, the 14th’s elections have broken in the 75 percent range for Republicans, while the 19th usually breaks in the 60 to 65 percent range.
In 2020 the 14th’s representative in Congress, Rep. Tom Graves, retired. After an initial primary that featured nine Republican contenders—like the Florida 19th District—Greene beat challenger John Cowan, a neurosurgeon and businessman, in the Republican runoff. Kevin Van Ausdal, the Democratic candidate, then dropped out of the race in September, for “family and personal reasons”—i.e., a divorce that led him to leave the state for his parents’ home in Indiana. This left Greene the unchallenged candidate and sent her to Congress.
“Is this the best the 14th District can do?” mourned an editorial in the Dalton, Ga., Daily Citizen-News [grammar theirs]. “We don’t think so. … We challenge patriotic citizens to examine their life and to determine whether they should put themself forward in the next race for the congressional seat in two years. … The more and varied voices, the better. And we must do better.”
Comparing peaches and oranges
In looking at differences between the two states, one can start out with size and population.
Georgia is half the size of Florida. According to 2019 Census figures, Georgia has a population of 10.9 million people. By contrast, Florida has 21.48 million people.
Florida gained the greatest population of all states in 2019: 601,611, which works out to roughly 1,650 arriving every day. Georgia gained 284,541, or roughly 780 per day. Georgia has five television markets, Florida has 10.
Florida is widely acknowledged to be a fragmented, unwieldy state politically and a very tough state in which to manage a statewide political campaign. Georgia is much more compact.
But aside from those physical and demographic differences, there are other important contrasts between the two states.
Personalities and parties
While Georgia had the driven, persistent efforts of Stacey Abrams, Florida does not have the same guiding force.
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum came within a heartbreaking 32,463 votes of defeating Ron DeSantis in 2018. Like Abrams, he vowed to continue his fight for Democratic victories and policies after the election. He founded Forward Florida, which, like Abrams’ organizations, aimed to register voters. He seemed to have momentum and potential until a crushing personal scandal ended his public possibilities, seemingly permanently.
In Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried is the highest ranking elected Democrat in the state and a very likely candidate for governor. But between her day job and her aspirations, driving voter turnout and fighting suppression is not her main focus.
“In Florida, Democrats have struggled to unite a sprawling, diverse coalition around a coherent plan to win races,” wrote Kirby Wilson in the article “What Florida Democrats have to learn from Stacey Abrams” in The Tampa Bay Times. “Even though nearly 5.3 million Floridians voted for Biden in 2020, some question whether Florida remains a swing state.”
Rick Wilson, the acerbic Republican operative and a co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, put it more succinctly: “The Democratic Party of Florida cannot organize a two-car motorcade,” he told The Palm Beach Post. “They are terrible at this work — nothing personal against any one person. The Florida GOP is the best-run Republican Party in the country.”
And he’s also said that Democrats “don’t understand this is not a blue state, it is a red state with a blue tip on the south end.”
For many years, knowledgeable political observers warned that it was misleading to view Hispanic voters as a monolithic block despite the tendency of many Democratic politicians and experts to see them that way. There are many different and diverse Hispanic communities, especially in Florida, and the 2020 election proved it.
Trump’s 2016 racist rants against Mexicans and Hispanic migrants and his incompetent handling of the 2017 Puerto Rico hurricane disaster were huge turnoffs to many Hispanics. But in 2020 his hardline policies and rhetoric against the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes and his targeted—and strident—anti-socialist message resonated among Florida’s Cuban-American and Venezuelan-American communities.
“Trump showed up in Florida. He asked us what our issues are and he addressed them. He didn’t take us for granted,” Bertica Cabrera Morris, a Republican strategist and a board member of Latinos for Trump, told NBC News immediately after the election.
As a result, while Biden made inroads in Miami-Dade County and ultimately won it, he did so by a far smaller margin—7 percent—than might otherwise be expected from 2016, when Trump lost it by 29 points.
One myth that has persisted among Florida Democrats is that turning out minority votes, specifically Black votes, can swing the state. While every vote is important, the fact is that if every single non-white Floridian cast a Democratic ballot, Black voters constitute only 16 percent of Florida voters—in contrast to Georgia where they represent 31.9 percent. In a close Florida election minority communities can make a difference but even if fully mobilized they don’t have the same decisive weight as in Georgia.
Although Florida has a huge influx of residents moving in, it is also not clear that they are necessarily changing the political complexion of the state, as new Georgia residents did there. While New Yorkers constituted the largest number of new Florida residents (57,488) according to 2019 Census figures, it’s not clear that their political allegiances were necessarily Democratic or outweigh those of other contributors to Florida’s population. (Interestingly, the next largest influx to Florida came from Georgia with 49,681 people.)
The bottom line: Georgia and Florida have very different populations and political orientations and require different efforts and strategies.
Analysis: What’s new in ’22?
People expecting the 2022 elections in Florida to be a replay of 2020 will be more than disappointed—they will be wrong, no matter which party they support.
Aside from it simply being a different year, overall conditions will be significantly altered, not just throughout the world but especially in Florida. Some major changes include:
The importance of the decennial redrawing of political boundaries cannot be overstated. Florida may be in line for as many as two new members of Congress, which would mean two new congressional districts. With a Republican governor and legislature, the lines are overwhelmingly likely to be redrawn to Republican advantage. Democrats may resort to the courts to change them but Florida’s courts have been in conservative Republican hands since Jeb Bush’s governorship starting in 1999. The results of redistricting will have implications for at least the next decade and probably beyond.
Not Trump but Trumpism
As this is written, the impeachment trial of Donald Trump is underway. Whether he will run or be eligible for future office is unclear. But what seems very certain is that Trumpism is unlikely to die, especially in Florida. (For more on this see the article, “No need to secede: Welcome to Florumpia!”) Even if support for Donald Trump and the authoritarianism he represents cools, the sentiment powering his cult will likely continue to be a factor in Florida politics well beyond 2022. As of this writing Gov. Ron DeSantis seems all in on Trumpism and will likely be running as a full-fledged Trumper in 2022. There’s much talk of Trump’s spawn seeking statewide office and possibly taking on Sen. Marco Rubio for the US Senate.
Nowhere is the divide between Trumpism and Republicanism clearer and more obvious than in the Sunshine State. That could produce a split in the electorate, especially if Trump or someone else forms a “Patriot” or “MAGA” party, which would effectively be the Trump cult with a Florida mailing address. In 2022 three major parties—Democratic, Republican and Trumper—may be battling for Floridians’ ballots.
The state of the pandemic on Nov. 8, Election Day 2022, will no doubt be a major factor in the results. No one can know now whether the whole thing will be over or if new variants will continue to take their toll.
Gov. Ron DeSantis is betting that by 2022 Florida voters will remember him more for getting seniors vaccinated and not for the frustration, desperation and uncertainty that accompanied Florida’s vaccine rollout.
In 2020 the pandemic had a major impact on campaigning. In Florida Democrats heeded COVID warnings and did much of their campaigning remotely or in cars. Republicans, by contrast, either followed Trump’s lead and dismissed COVID as a hoax or simply ignored it when they did in-person campaigning. It didn’t matter to them if their voters, volunteers and staffers sickened and died as long as they lived long enough to cast ballots. Say what one will, it was a strategy that worked.
In 2022 Democrats will have to resume in-person campaigning, whether that means rallies, canvassing or get-togethers of any kind if they’re going to be competitive again. Presumably this will be possible with largely vaccinated populations but one cannot be sure at this point.
One other point that needs to be made: if President Joe Biden’s vaccination efforts work and if Floridians can connect his decisions to the end of the pandemic and their own health, it may just rebound to the benefit of state Democrats when people go to the polls. But getting people to connect good national policy to their personal benefit and rewarding politicians and parties with their votes is a long stretch—especially in Florida.
Measures taken by the Biden administration may lead the economy—both in Florida and nationally—to at least a modest recovery by Election Day 2022. Clearly, that will be a stark contrast with 2020 when the pandemic led to a massive downturn.
But recovery is not certain and the economic blows the nation took in 2020 will take a long time to heal. However, if there is some recovery, if the pandemic can be stopped or slowed and if “normal” economic activity can resume with some degree of safety, it may rebound to the Democrats’ benefit.
Throughout the pandemic DeSantis—following the lead of Trump, his patron—de-emphasized anti-COVID measures in favor of keeping businesses open. The political calculation here was that a relatively functional economy was worth the cost in lives.
The next election will tell us if that calculation paid off and how voters weigh the results.
Of course, in looking ahead to a new election, personalities make a big difference. It is sufficient to say that if Democrats field vibrant, exciting and inspiring candidates at all levels who have messages that resonate with their voters, they will have a chance against an old guard tainted by its association with Trump, its complicity in his crimes and its self-destructive adherence to his delusions.
Georgia on my mind
So what must Democrats do to follow the Georgia playbook and flip Florida—despite the obvious differences between the two states?
In her book, Our Time is Now Stacey Abrams goes through her daily checklist as she evaluates the state of her campaign. It’s a good checklist for any campaign:
Early investments in infrequent voters;
Consistent, authentic progressive messaging;
Outreach in multiple languages;
Centering the issues of communities of color and marginalized groups typically exiled to the fringes of statewide elections.
In addition, just before the Senate runoff election, the Democratic Party of Georgia issued a six-page memo analyzing its 2020 presidential victory. While particular to the state, it also yielded some broader principles that could be applicable in Florida:
Build “a robust coalitions program aimed at engaging voters and elected officials in the Latino, AAPI [Asian American and Pacific Islander], African American communities, faith and religious leaders, military and veteran families, sportsmen and sportswomen, as well as youth, LGBTQI, women, progressive and Jewish coalitions.”
Build a digital-first organizing approach allowing the campaign to reach voters in new and creative ways, creating digital organizing hubs, speaking with voters on every platform, and hosting daily virtual events all over the state.
Using a combination of daily virtual and in-person events, drive the news cycle to parallel the broader campaign strategic imperatives on persuading and turning out voters. A strong surrogate program and regular principal travel also helps drive the news cycle and increase voter mobilization and engagement.
Blanket the airwaves on TV and radio, while leveraging targeted digital efforts and direct mail to boost turnout and bolster persuasion efforts.
Expand voter contact efforts to help voters apply for absentee ballots as early as possible and make voting by mail as easy as possible.
Obviously, Florida Democrats have some unique imperatives: they must win back the Hispanic voters that they lost in 2020; they must meet and defeat the “socialist” canard that Republicans threw—and continue to throw—at them; they must defeat voter suppression in all its forms; as the state of the pandemic allows, they must resume in-person campaigning. More than any other imperative, they must turn out voters from every nook and cranny and hiding place, from Florida’s swamps to its beaches to its urban jungles to its retirement villages and nursing homes.
The demographics of Georgia and Florida are very different. But Stacey Abrams has a very telling observation in her book and it is one Floridians can take to heart.
“Demography is not destiny,” she writes. “It is opportunity.”
Maybe, just maybe, Florida Democrats can find the opportunity in the changing demographics of their state by next year and make 2022 a year when Florida returns to its democratic traditions—but in a fresh, new and hopeful way.
In a major blow to President Donald Trump, the United States Senate voted this afternoon to override his veto of the Department of Defense appropriations bill by a vote of 81 to 13.
Both of Florida’s Republican senators, Rick Scott and Marco Rubio, voted with the majority to override. As of this writing, neither had issued a statement explaining his vote.
Their votes were remarkable given both senators’ past vocal support for the President.
The override was also an indication of Trump’s rapidly eroding clout. He had called for an end to Section 230, a non-defense provision protecting Internet companies from liability for postings on their sites and objected to changing the names of military bases from those honoring Confederate generals. When the bill did not include those measures he vetoed it.
The National Defense Authorization Act (House Resolution 6395) provides $750 billion for US military operations and national defense including a pay raise for servicemembers. It will now go into effect.
The 13 members opposing the override included Democrats like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who had insisted that there not be a vote on the defense bill unless there was also one on providing Americans financially hurt by the pandemic with $2,000. House Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), however, opposed submitting that to a vote and finally proceeded with the override vote separately.
This was the first override of a Trump veto in his presidency.
When President-Elect Joe Biden introduced his new climate, energy and environmental team last Saturday, Dec. 19, he presented the nation with a group of veteran officials and activists who know the issues and, to a striking extent, understand water and the challenges surrounding it—and appreciate the water problems Florida faces.
The importance of this is not to be underestimated. Now, when Southwest Florida officials make their case for Everglades restoration funding or try to fight harmful algal blooms or try to reduce pollution in regional waterways, they’ll be talking to veteran experts in high places who know their water.
It’s a stark contrast with the years under President Donald Trump, when the Interior Department was headed by a fossil fuel industry lobbyist, when regulations were only good for being abolished and climate change was derided as a “Chinese hoax.”
Instead the new team’s experience and expertise bodes well for Southwest Florida’s waters.
Six top nominees were presented. Their backgrounds show extensive water-related experience.
Gina McCarthy, National Climate Advisor-designate.
Gina McCarthy headed the Environmental Protection Agency under President Barack Obama and has 30 years of environmental activism under her belt.
Under Biden, McCarthy will head a new White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy, a counterpart to John Kerry, former Secretary of State and presidential candidate, who has been named special climate envoy and will likely be reintegrating the United States back into the Paris Climate Agreement.
At the American Water Summit in Miami, Fla., in December 2016, McCarthy called water “one of the top public health and economic challenges now facing our country” and said: “We need to move away from the narrow 20th century view of water: as a place to dump waste; as something to just treat and send downstream in pipes; as only an expense for cities and a planning burden for communities. We need to accelerate the move to a 21st century view – where we see water as a finite and valuable asset, as a major economic driver, as essential to urban revitalization, as a centerpiece for innovative technology, and as a key focus of our efforts to build resilience.”
Ali Zaidi, Deputy National Climate Advisor-Designate
An immigrant from Pakistan, Zaidi grew up outside Erie, Pennsylvania.
In the Obama White House, Zaidi served as Associate Director for Natural Resources, Energy, and Science at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). He and his team helped execute economic and environmental policy on a wide array of policy, budget and management issues affecting $100 billion in funding. At OMB, he was responsible for implementing the presidential Climate Action Plan, which he helped design and draft. He was also a negotiator of the Paris Climate Agreement.
In a December 2016 posting on the White House website that looked back on a year’s progress on a water innovation strategy, Zaidi wrote: “Water supply challenges are felt around the world; in fact, water scarcity tops the World Economic Forum’s list of long-term risks to the health of the global economy.”
The response of the Obama administration—and Zaidi—was to formulate new tools and partner with the private sector to “develop and deploy the technologies and practices that both conserve water and generate new, clean supplies.” Doing this included laying out clear technical targets and mobilizing people, investors and technicians to achieve them. “The strategy focused on new cost-effective climate solutions to spur new American businesses and jobs,” he wrote.
At the time, Zaidi thought that the administration’s initiatives were having a measurable impact “and the momentum is irreversible.” That might have been overly optimistic given the four years of President Donald Trump’s administration.
This time around Zaidi will have a lot of repair work to do before he can launch new initiatives—but Southwest Florida can be confident that he knows water and its importance.
Deb Haaland, Secretary of the Interior-designate
Much of the focus on Rep. Deb Haaland (D-1-NM) has been on the fact that she would be the first Native American to serve as Interior Secretary. Of much more significance to Southwest Florida is the fact that in parched New Mexico, water is a precious commodity and Haaland has concentrated on the policies related to it.
Haaland is a 35th generation New Mexican of the Pueblo of Laguna. The daughter of a US Marine, she lived all over the United States, attending 13 different public schools during her education. She was long an environmental activist before being elected to Congress in 2018.
“Water is life. We must ensure the availability and integrity of this resource for generations to come,” she wrote in 2017 in her campaign for Congress. “Climate change is a national security threat and it should be treated as such. Just take a look what is happening in Florida, Houston and Puerto Rico.”
Haaland is anti-fracking and opposes offshore oil drilling, both key issues for Southwest Floridians. She will represent a complete change from current Interior Department policies, which Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) once characterized as “drill, baby, drill.”
Michael Regan, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator-Designate
Currently Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), Regan served in the EPA under both Democratic and Republican presidents. He received his degree in earth and environmental science from North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro and earned a master degree at George Washington University in Washington, DC.
“We will be driven by our convictions that every person in our great country has the right to clean air, clean water and a healthier life, no matter how much money they have in their pockets, the color of their skin or the community that they live in,” Regan said when he was introduced by Biden.
A North Carolina native, Regan’s top priority in that state was coal ash cleanup from energy operations. He negotiated a settlement with Duke Energy to clean up 80 million tons of coal ash. He also focused on climate resilience, sea level rise, reducing animal waste pollution from farming operations, chemical toxins in water and mudslides, according to The News & Observer of Raleigh, NC. He had to do this despite a 40 percent cut in DEQ personnel.
Last July, when a North Carolina river registered a major bacteria bloom, Regan took to the water himself, canoeing on the river and holding a discussion with local officials, businesspeople and activists, as reported in the local Citizen Times.
“We have a water quality issue in North Carolina. We have an infrastructure issue in NC,” Regan said. “We don’t want to lose our globally competitive position. We want to continue to grow economically. This is a moving train and we don’t plan to slow down. We have to continue moving forward in a smart way.”
The DEQ’s Water Resources Division oversees nearly 60,000 stream miles in North Carolina and maintains seven field offices. While Florida and North Carolina have different climates and water issues, Regan certainly knows the fundamentals of water management and policy.
Jennifer Granholm, Secretary of Energy-Designate
Jennifer Granholm served two terms as governor of Michigan from 2003 to 2011 and as the state’s attorney general prior to that.
As Energy Secretary, water and environment will not be her primary concerns. But that doesn’t mean she’s unfamiliar with water crises and challenges.
In 2014, when the city of Flint, Michigan changed its drinking water source, a failure to inhibit corrosion in its pipes led to severe lead poisoning among residents. It was a huge scandal. Granholm had long left office and was serving as a law professor at the University of California in Berkeley. But distance didn’t keep her from expressing some choice words for her Republican successor, Gov. Rick Snyder.
“I would want to see pedal to the metal, hair on fire action in Flint. And I think [Snyder], right now, can do that,” Granholm told The Detroit News when the crisis broke. “But if not, then I think somebody should come in who can look at [it] as the emergency that it is and move heaven and earth to get those pipes replaced.” She called on Snyder to move to Flint and live in one of the affected houses.
Brenda Mallory, Council on Environmental Quality Chair-Designate
Established in 1970 by President Richard Nixon, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) plays a strategic and advisory role, helping to devise overall policy.
Biden has nominated Brenda Mallory to chair the CEQ. She served as its general counsel under Obama and is currently Director of Regulatory Policy at the Southern Environmental Law Center,
“Mallory brings deep and versatile expertise working directly with communities and partners across the public and private sectors to solve climate challenges and advance environmental protection and environmental justice,” Biden said in introducing her.
“Though she’s never had a high public profile, Mallory is widely considered to be one of the country’s top experts on environmental regulatory policy,” stated the National Resources Defense Council when she was named.
Analysis: Opportunity and promise
Under President Joe Biden, when Southwest Florida’s officials or representatives bring a water issue to the administration they can now be assured of a knowledgeable and likely sympathetic hearing by top officials. This is a major step forward for the region and one that should not be squandered by congressmen locked into a rigid, hostile ideological approach to the new administration.
There’s another opportunity for Southwest Florida presented by the new administration team and an environmentally sensitive Congress driven by science and aware of climate change.
It is just possible that the new Water School at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) would have a better chance than ever to become a recognized national center of excellence. Working with the new administration, it may just find its federal grant applications are given higher priority and its research may be applied more broadly.
Certainly, once the new administration takes office—and even before—it would behoove FGCU to reach out to the new team, invite them to FGCU to see the facilities, host some international conferences, integrate its work and research with national priorities and lobby vigorously for its own needs.
The expertise, activism and familiarity with water issues of Biden’s environmental team provide a source of hope and opportunity. After a long, dark time for Southwest Florida, its waters and those who care about them may finally feel some sunshine.
President Donald Trump’s sudden attack on the $900 billion coronavirus relief bill passed by the House and Senate on Monday, Dec. 21, deals severe blows to Southwest Florida and to the provisions that benefit the region.
Yesterday, Dec. 22, Trump, without warning congressional Republicans, issued a 9-minute, 53-second video on Twitter. In it he explained his reasons for trying to overturn the results of the presidential election and then denounced the laboriously negotiated and passed Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021. The bill funds the US government through the next fiscal year but most importantly to most Americans suffering from the pandemic, it provides $600 in payments to those who have lost their jobs.
Equally important, it provided funding for COVID vaccine acquisition and distribution.
In his video, Trump called the bill “a disgrace,” attacked it for funding foreign aid and a variety of domestic purposes and demanded that it provide $2,000 for each American.
House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) immediately agreed to try to provide the $2,000, this after weeks of negotiations during which they struggled to get Republican negotiators to raise the relief amount from an original offer of $300 to $600.
“Republicans repeatedly refused to say what amount the President wanted for direct checks,” tweeted Pelosi. “At last, the President has agreed to $2,000—Democrats are ready to bring this to the Floor this week by unanimous consent. Let’s do it!”
The bill includes provisions directly affecting Southwest Florida that were inserted by Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) and Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.).
According to Diaz-Balart, the bill funds local infrastructure, school safety, Everglades restoration, agricultural support and housing programs for low-income families and the homeless. Patients are protected from surprise billing and, in a move of particularly local interest, the Moore Haven Lock and Dam on Lake Okeechobee is re-named in honor of Julian Keen, Jr., a Florida Wildlife Conservation officer who was killed in LaBelle in June while trying to stop a hit-and-run suspect. (The full text of Diaz-Balart’s statement is below.)
Of critical importance to Southwest Florida is the inclusion of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) in the bill. WRDA provides authorization for every water-related infrastructure project in the country and has been a particular focus of Rooney’s efforts.
When WRDA was finalized earlier in the month he stated: “Passage of WRDA is an important step in finally advancing the 68 Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) projects that have been previously approved. These projects will significantly reduce discharges to the Caloosahatchee, reduce the toxic algal blooms that have plagued us in previous years, and improve overall water quality in SWFL.”
As Rooney points out, the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee Watershed include 16 counties and 164 cities. They have a $2 trillion economic impact on the state and support $1.3 trillion, or 55 percent of the real estate value in Florida. Four dollars in economic benefits are produced for every dollar invested in the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee Watershed.
The bill that Congress passed includes $250 million for Everglades restoration for fiscal 2021.
Analysis: Coming up next
While Trump has not formally vetoed the appropriations bill, it is unclear what the next courses of action will be, since it cannot be finalized without his signature. As Pelosi noted, she may try to get a new version of the bill passed through “unanimous consent” in which all the members of the House agree to simply pass it without objection—dubious in this Congress.
Otherwise, the entire 5,593-page bill will have to be renegotiated and passed by both House and Senate before Dec. 29 when funding for the government runs out. If Congress cannot do that, the government will shut down and the results will be truly and fully catastrophic: vaccines will not be purchased or distributed, Americans will not get any financial pandemic relief and the economy is likely to crash. All this will come when coronavirus cases are peaking, Russia is hacking the US government without any resistance or defense at the highest level and Trump is continuing to resist and deny the outcome of the presidential election.
If Trump had objections to the bill while it was being negotiated he should have expressed them and his concerns would have been incorporated at an earlier stage. But that kind of involvement in governing and attention to detail is not his style and all reports are that he simply ignored it.
Southwest Floridians should make no mistake about this: they are directly affected by Trump’s incompetence, grandstanding and mismanagement. People who don’t get coronavirus care or the vaccine will die—likely in large numbers. But perhaps the chaos and distress he is causing is exactly what he intended.
Full statement on the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart following its passage:
“The FY2021 funding bill includes big wins for our nation and for Florida. This bill prioritizes funding to enhance our infrastructure, support our military and law enforcement, and strengthen our national security. In addition, school safety remains a top priority, Everglades Restoration receives a significant influx of funding, and programs that our farmers and growers rely on will continue. It also supports critical housing programs such as the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and Homeless Assistance Grants.
“Attached to this bill are several legislative priorities, including an end to surprise billing—patients will now know the real cost of a scheduled procedure before it takes place. Additionally, this bill includes the final version of WRDA 2020, thereby ensuring the Moore Haven Lock and Dam is renamed in honor of fallen FWC Officer Julian Keen, Jr.
“We have already seen Florida capitalize on the programs these bills fund, and with its passage today, our state will continue to benefit from them moving forward.”
Southwest Florida Rep. Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.) and Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) were among the members in the minority of their respective chambers who voted against a massive, $900 billion coronavirus relief bill that passed both the House of Representatives and the US Senate last night.
The Senate vote was 92 to 6 in favor of the bill. In contrast to Scott, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) voted in favor of it.
Among its many other provisions, the bill will provide $600 to Americans making less than $75,000 per year who lost jobs in the pandemic.
The Senate vote came at 10:48 pm, two hours after the House approved the measure. The Consolidated Appropriations Act 2021 (House Resolution 133) passed in two House votes, the first approved by 327 votes to 85 and the second by 359 to 53.
The bill now goes to President Donald Trump, who is expected to sign it today. The bill passed in both chambers by veto-proof margins.
In both cases, Southwest Florida Reps. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) and Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) voted in favor of the measure.
“We must help Americans & small businesses in need but we can’t keep operating this way,” stated Scott in a tweet. “Once again, in classic Washington style, vital programs are attached to a massive omnibus spending bill that mortgages our kids & grandkid’s futures. Therefore, I can’t support this bill.”
“My job here in the Senate is to solve problems & make a difference,” tweeted Rubio following the Senate vote. “That is what we did for #SmallBiz earlier this year with #PPP [the Paycheck Protection Program]. And that is what we did again now.”
Calling it “a so-called relief bill,” Steube charged that “instead of addressing the economic suffering of Americans, Democrats have manipulated this process to force their radical agenda on the American people during a time of crisis,” he tweeted. He expanded on his objections in a longer statement.
House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.) said in a floor speech that while there was more work to do to stop the pandemic and help Americans, the bill “will meet the needs of the American people—to crush this virus and to do so in a way that brings us all into the future in a very safe way.”
The 5,593-page piece of legislation also includes another bill of vital importance to Southwest Florida, the Water Resources Development Act, which governs all the water sources in the region.
Both Diaz-Balart in the House and Rubio in the Senate claimed credit for a provision allowing citizens married to spouses who were previously ineligible for benefits to now collect them.
“The CARES ACT [a previous relief bill] contained an oversight that prevented otherwise eligible American citizens from getting assistance because they were married to a non-citizen,” tweeted Rubio. “I filed a bill to fix it.”
“As I have stated before, there is no reason to justify why a US Citizen or Legal Permanent Resident should be excluded from receiving a benefit meant for Americans simply due to the legal status of a spouse,” stated Diaz-Balart. “I am thrilled to see that this provision was taken into consideration in this new COVID relief bill, and I look forward to seeing the great impact this will make in helping the American people.”
The final bill was the result of a deal reached between the House and Senate leadership after long and difficult negotiations. However, with millions of Americans facing the consequences of lost jobs because of the coronavirus pandemic, the pressure to reach an agreement was intense.
“We are disappointed that Republicans have refused to recognize the need to honor our heroic frontline workers by supporting robust funding for state and local governments,” stated Pelosi. “State and local governments need much more funding to prevent senseless layoffs and critical service cuts.”
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has stated that, once signed, government-issued checks could go out as soon as next week.
It’s almost official: tonight the Supreme Court turned down a Texas lawsuit to overthrow the results of the presidential election in four swing states. On Monday the electors of the Electoral College will—barring an act of God or outright sedition—certify Joe Biden as the next president of the United States and Kamala Harris as vice president.
But facts go down hard in Southwest Florida.
According to a recent poll by the firm Victory Insights of Naples, Fla., 53 percent of Southwest Florida Republicans are open to the idea of Florida seceding from the United States and forming its own country. Why? Because they think the results of the presidential election were fraudulent.
First, let it be said that Florida secession is a really stupid idea. This is the only state where a sitting governor committed suicide when secession didn’t succeed the first time in 1865. There have been all sorts of secession ideas since the Civil War and none of them have come to fruition. There’s no reason to expect that a second Florida secession would have any better success.
Moreover, as glad as the rest of the United States would be to get rid of Florida, independence is improbable, to say the least.
However, if Southwest Florida Republicans really want a Trumpist government, they have no need to secede at all. While President Donald Trump seems firmly on his way out of the presidency—unless he incites an armed rebellion to overturn the 2020 election results—the kind of autocratic, self-centered government he dreamed of creating nationally is being premiered in the great state of Florida even while it’s still part of the Union.
It’s a government that indulges Trump’s delusions, overlooks uncomfortable realities, ignores science and the health of its people, twists the facts and crushes dissent. It has the hallmarks of a dictatorship.
It’s something new. Let’s call it “Florumpia.”
And speaking seriously, unless opponents effectively mobilize, Trumpism may dominate the state government for a long time to come.
Florumpia is possible because Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and his handpicked administration has chosen to entirely follow the Trump playbook and adopt the Trump mindset on all things related to Florida. DeSantis is governing in true Trumpist fashion.
The signs are everywhere. When it comes to COVID, DeSantis is ignoring the pandemic, playing down its threat and not only refusing a statewide mask mandate to protect Floridians but making it impossible for localities to establish their own mandates.
As for respecting facts, reality and truth: dissident data scientist Rebekah Jones charged that the state Department of Health was fudging infection numbers to fit DeSantis’ policy goals. Her house has now been raided and searched in an act clearly intended not just to find the perpetrator of an internal e-mail urging state employees to speak out but to intimidate her into silence as well as anyone else who might challenge the DeSantis doctrine.
When it comes to Trump’s delusional denial of the results of the election, Florida joined the absurd Texas effort to completely overturn the vote of the American people. To this day, only two of the state’s Republican officeholders (Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Francis Rooney) have publicly accepted the election results.
When it comes to free and independent coverage of these developments DeSantis has adopted the Trump tactic of trying to discredit the media, blaming bad press on politicized, “agenda-driven” “corporate media.”
All of this might seem like temporary insanity that will pass when President-Elect Joe Biden is sworn in on Jan. 20, but there are structural factors that point to Trumpanoia going deeper and lasting longer in this state than anywhere else in the country.
1. Trump will be in the house: Florida is now the official residence of Donald Trump and where he is likely to come to live after leaving the White House. The baleful influence of his physical presence in the state is not to be underestimated. As comedian Woody Allen once said, “Eighty percent of life is showing up.” Just by showing up in Florida, Trump will be able to have meetings, hold rallies and stay in the local media spotlight, if not the national one. He will be able to call on Trumpers in the state to hold protests, demonstrations and issue threats if there’s something he doesn’t like. Instead of having to pick up the phone to call DeSantis, he’ll be able to stroll into his office. And who’s going to keep him out?
2. A Republican state government: The 2020 election resulted in 78 Republican seats to 42 Democratic ones in the Florida state House and 24 Republican to 16 Democratic seats in the state Senate. With the one exception of Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, all state executive offices are held by Republicans. The state’s judges have been appointed by Republican governors since Jeb Bush took office in 1999. What is more, in Florida this is not Abraham Lincoln’s Republicanism, it’s Trump’s.
With only the feeblest checks and virtually no balances, Florumpia is a one-party state just as surely as North Korea—but with beaches and palm trees.
3. Gerrymandering: As if existing political forces didn’t weigh on the state enough, the fact of a totally Republican state government means that all legislative districts will be gerrymandered to favor Republicans based on the 2020 Census—ensuring Republican control for the next decade at least.
4. Florida Men: As Benito Mussolini could call on his Black Shirts and Adolf Hitler could call on his Brown Shirts, Trump can call on his MAGA red hats to sway the state to his will with the pliant complicity of the DeSantis administration. Around the country Trumpers have issued death threats against officials that Trump doesn’t like, most notably against election officials in Georgia and Michigan. As the Southwest Florida polls have demonstrated, he retains a mesmerized horde in the Sunshine State, which can be deployed now and in the future to obey his whims and orders. All it takes is a tweet—or, after Jan. 20, a Parler.
5. Dark money—and lots of it: In the month after Election Day, Nov. 3, Trump raised $207.5 million—on top of $288 million he’d raised since Oct. 15, according to The Washington Post. The total has likely gone up in the days since; between Oct. 15 and Nov. 23 he was bringing in $13 million per day thanks to relentless fundraising appeals, which have not slackened.
Some of the money is going to his lawsuits and efforts to overturn the election. Other sums are going to the Trump Make America Great Again Committee, the Republican Party and his political action committee, Save America. This being Trump, vast amounts are likely pouring into his own pocket.
But a proportion of that money and other dark money will probably be turned into buying political power in Florida. Dark money from Trumpist contributors already affected local races in 2020, including one state senate race where a $1 million dark money contribution helped the Republican candidate win by only 32 votes. After Trump is out of office there is a very high likelihood that a good chunk of those dollars are going to be spent making sure that Florida and its officials don’t stray too far from Trumpist orthodoxy.
6. The launch pad: Just as Florida’s Cape Canaveral is the launch pad for American space missions, Florumpia will probably serve as the launch pad for Trump’s 2024 presidential bid. Assuming he stays alive and doesn’t have another bout of COVID or some other unforeseen obstacle, he will no doubt be bending all Republican thought, resources and personnel in the state to his election. It will not make for a lively or diverse political dialogue and Trump is unlikely to tolerate any dissent, disagreement or anyone else’s political ambitions.
The one-party record
Florida’s Democrats already have a hard row to hoe to simply stay viable and in the next two years that row is going to get rockier and steeper. The kind of political atmosphere that once applied largely in Southwest Florida is now going to be seen statewide. As Rick Wilson, the wise Lincoln Project Republican and consultant has said, “Florida, north of I-4, is basically Alabama with more guns” and Democrats “don’t understand this is not a blue state, it is a red state with a blue tip on the south end.”
But one-party polities have their own weaknesses. They tend to be personality-driven, riven by factions and end up with purges and internal battles like Hitler’s “Night of the Long Knives” or Stalin’s show trials. The state’s Grand Old Party could fracture from its own internal stresses.
On top of this are Trump’s own pathologies, his impulsiveness and his tendency to turn on former allies and supporters. DeSantis would do well to study the experience of his neighbor to the north, Georgia’s Gov. Brian Kemp (R), once a Trump darling and now the focus of his wrath for daring to carry out the dictates of the law. Some day when Trump awakens in Mar-a-Lago with indigestion he may decide that DeSantis was the cause and DeSantis will pay the price.
Additionally, the devoted followers of the Great God Trump may find that their aversion to science, masking and anti-COVID precautions causes a significant thinning of their ranks before the next round of elections in 2022. They may hope for herd immunity but get herd culling instead.
So those who don’t believe Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, who are so fervent in their belief that not even the Electoral College can shake their faith and who are ready to bend a knee to a mad king have no need to secede from the United States. They have Florumpia, the land of sunshine and delusion.
It is, however, worth remembering the words of Fisher Ames, a congressman in the early years of the American republic. He once observed that “Monarchy is like a sleek craft, it sails along well until some bumbling captain runs it into the rocks. Democracy, on the other hand, is like a raft. It never goes down but, dammit, your feet are always wet.”
And remember this: when your ship sinks, it’s a raft that saves your life.
The re-election campaign of President Donald Trump acknowledges that his rallies may spread COVID-19—but requires attendees to sign away any rights to compensation should they come down with the virus.
Trump, who was diagnosed with coronavirus on Oct. 2, will hold a rally at Orlando Sanford International Airport in Sanford, Fla., tonight at 7:00 pm. It is the first rally outside Washington, DC since his diagnosis.
On the Trump-Pence campaign website, would-be attendees are told: “By registering for this event, you understand and expressly acknowledge that an inherent risk of exposure to COVID-19 exists in any public place where people are present. In attending the event, you and any guests voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19, and waive, release, and discharge Donald J. Trump for President, Inc.; the host venue; or any of their affiliates, directors, officers, employees, agents, contractors, or volunteers from any and all liability under any theory, whether in negligence or otherwise, for any illness or injury.”
A White House gathering on Sept. 26 to introduce Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett has been characterized by Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, as a “superspreader” event for infecting at least six people present, who then spread the virus among numerous other White House staff and administration officials.
Five judges are on the ballot in this year’s general election ballot in Lee and Collier counties.
These are judicial “retention” questions, asking voters whether a judge should be kept in his or her current position. If voted out, the governor—in this case Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) —nominates a new judge to fill the position from a list of between three and six qualified people recommended by the Judicial Nominating Commission. There is no Senate confirmation in Florida, so the person selected becomes a Justice after taking the proper oath. When the judge’s term expires, his or her name is placed on the general election ballot for a merit retention vote, unless the judge chooses to leave.
Judicial retention questions are non-partisan and are not really political races in the sense that there are not candidates contending against each other.
Since there’s no campaigning or competition and very little media coverage, it’s difficult for voters to evaluate judges.
One stinging critique of the Florida judiciary comes from attorney Adam Tebrugge, a criminal defense attorney with 35 years of experience at the Florida bar, who argues in his blog that all of this year’s judicial nominees should be refused.
“My primary argument for voting NO on all Florida judges is that they are simply not doing their job,” he argues, stating that the appellate judges usually rubberstamp lower court rulings, especially in criminal cases, without serious consideration of the issues. “The problem is institutional and systemic, that is, the system is designed to fail, not to vindicate the constitutional rights of litigants.”
Further, Trebugge states, the judiciary has been politicized. “Every judge up for retention in 2020 was appointed by a Republican governor,” he writes. “Without a doubt, Florida judges have been politicized over the past 20 years. These days, membership in the Federalist Society seems like a prerequisite to being named judge.” The Federalist Society is an organization promoting a conservative and libertarian view of the law. Federalist Society judges, he alleges, “are chosen because they will vote a certain way, not for their fealty to the law.”
Tebrugge’s recommended solution is to send a message to Tallahassee and Gov. DeSantis by rejecting all judges on the ballot—even if it’s DeSantis who will appoint their replacements.
Whether Trebugge is right or not, voters require deeper knowledge of the judges on the ballot in Southwest Florida than they have been provided to date.
One judge on the ballot sits on the Supreme Court for all of Florida and is subject to statewide election.
Supreme Court Judge Carlos Muñiz
According to his official biography, Carlos Muñiz was appointed to the Supreme Court on Jan. 22, 2019 by DeSantis.
Prior to his appointment, Muñiz was the general counsel to the Department of Education and served on the staff of Secretary Betsy DeVos. He was confirmed to the department position by the US Senate.
Prior to his federal appointment he worked in both private practice and the federal government.
He also had an extensive career in Florida: he was deputy attorney general and chief of staff to Attorney General Pam Bondi, deputy chief of staff and counsel to the Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, general counsel to the Department of Financial Services and deputy general counsel to Gov. Jeb Bush (R). In 2010 he contributed $78.70 to the election campaign of Republican Marco Rubio for US Senate, according to the Federal Election Commission (FEC).
He’s a graduate of the University of Virginia and Yale Law School and grew up in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC, where he attended St. James Catholic School and Bishop Ireton High School.
Members of the Florida Bar Association who had considerable knowledge of Muñiz recommended his retention by 63 percent. Those with limited knowledge of him voted for his retention by 76 percent.
Muñiz has consistently voted with the conservative majority of the Florida Supreme Court.
For example, in June 2020 Muñiz voted with a four-judge majority to keep a constitutional amendment banning ownership of assault weapons off the Florida ballot.
The proposed amendment followed the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. According to the website Voting for Justice, which tracks judicial candidates, the organization Ban Assault Weapons NOW sponsored a petition to add the amendment to the 2022 ballot. However, the majority, including Muñiz, ruled that the amendment’s language was “misleading” because it stated that “If a person had lawful possession of an assault weapon prior to the effective date …, the person’s possession of that assault weapon is not unlawful.” They ruled that the terms “assault rifle” and “person’s possession” were “misleading.”
In an advisory opinion this past January on Amendment 4 of the Florida Constitution restoring felons’ voting rights, Muñiz also voted with the majority to argue that felons who have served their sentences must pay all fines and fees before being allowed to vote.
Analysis: Muñiz is a highly educated, well-credentialed judge with a record of conservative activism. In particular, his stint as Betsy DeVos’ counsel and his own unfamiliarity with public schools would seem to indicate that he is unlikely to be a friend of public education should any cases related to it come before the Florida Supreme Court. His vote on banning assault weapons indicates he would not favor measures restraining gun violence. He has also been criticized by Trebugge for ignoring “binding United States Supreme Court precedent in death penalty cases.”
The Second Court of Appeals
Four of the judges sit on the Second District Court of Appeal, which covers 14 counties in west-central Florida from Pasco to Collier and is headquartered in Lakeland. The court takes appeals from five circuit courts. There are 16 judges on the court who annually hear between 5,500 and 6,300 cases. These judges are being submitted to a vote in the 2nd District, which includes Lee and Collier counties.
Second Court of Appeals Judge Drew Atkinson
Judge Drew Atkinson, 46, is a native of Gainesville, Fla., and was raised in Bradenton where he attended high school. He is a US Army Ranger veteran and received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Florida State University and a juris doctor degree with honors from Nova Southeastern University.
He began his career in the Criminal Appeals Division of the Florida Attorney General’s office in 2005. After clerking for an Appeals Court judge he served as assistant general counsel to the governor, worked at the firm Broad and Cassel, LLP for a year and four months and then served as general counsel for both the Florida Department of State and Department of Management Services starting in 2013. He was appointed to the Second District court in 2018 by Gov. Rick Scott (R).
He’s a member of the Federalist Society. In the 2018 election cycle he contributed $250 to the congressional campaign of Mary Thomas in the 2nd Congressional District, according to the FEC. Initially calling herself a “true conservative” and winning an endorsement from the Tea Party-related Liberty Caucus in Congress, Thomas withdrew before the primary.
Of the Florida Bar Association members who had considerable knowledge of Atkinson, 69 percent recommended that he be retained.
Analysis: Drew Atkinson is a Federalist Society conservative judge with significant legal and governmental experience. Ideologically and politically, he sits on the hard right of conservative legal thought.
Second Court of Appeals Judge Morris Silberman
Judge Morris Silberman stands out for the very high ratings he received from Florida Bar Association members. Of the members with considerable knowledge of him, 92 percent recommended his retention as did 88 percent with limited knowledge of him. This gave him an overall 90 percent retention recommendation, the highest of all the Second Court judges on the ballot.
According to his official biography, Silberman received his undergraduate degree from Tulane University, majoring in philosophy and political science. He received his juris doctor degree from the University of Florida College of Law in 1982.
After law school and clerking, he worked in private firms in Sarasota and Clearwater and in 1988 formed his own firm in Clearwater, concentrating on business and contract disputes in civil litigation and appellate issues.
He was appointed to the Second District in 2001 by Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and served as chief justice from 2011 to 2013.
Silberman has an extensive record of professional involvement, serving on a wide variety of councils, professional associations and institutes in addition to official bodies like the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission and the Florida Bar Board of Governors. He’s done extensive teaching, lecturing and writing on legal matters.
Analysis: Silberman is a highly respected and experienced jurist who is active, engaged and community-oriented.
Second Court of Appeals Judge Daniel Sleet
Daniel Sleet attended Furman University in South Carolina on a full football scholarship and earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1984, according to his official biography. He received his juris doctor degree from Cumberland School of Law in 1987 where he was awarded a scholarship his third year as Director of Trial Advocacy. During his last two years of law school, he served as a magistrate for the City of Birmingham, Alabama.
After law school he served as assistant state attorney for Hillsborough County, Florida from 1987 to 1991 before joining the Tampa law firm of Barr, Murman, & Tonelli as an associate attorney, specializing in personal injury defense. He made partner in 1998.
After practicing law for 19 years he was appointed to the Florida 13th Judicial Circuit Court in 2005 by Gov. Jeb Bush, winning re-election in 2008. In 2012 he was appointed to the appellate bench by Gov. Rick Scott.
By far the most controversial and high profile case over which Sleet presided was that of Kenneth Young.
In 2000 at the age of 15, Young, an African American, was sentenced to four consecutive life terms without parole for his role in four armed robberies of Tampa-area hotels in June of that year.
In Young’s telling, he’d been forced to participate in the robberies by his crack-addicted mother’s drug dealer. The dealer, owed money, threatened to kill the mother unless Young helped in the robberies, which he did. At one point, according to Young, he talked the dealer out of raping a robbery victim. Although the dealer threatened victims with a pistol during the robberies, no one was injured.
When Young was caught he was tried as an adult and sentenced to four life sentences.
There the matter might have remained except that in 2010 the US Supreme Court ruled that juveniles cannot be given life sentences without parole unless they commit murder.
That gave Young another chance at sentencing and in 2012 he appeared before Second District Appellate Court.
Now 26 years old, Young and his advocates argued that in his years in prison he’d studied, made an effort to rehabilitate himself and stayed out of trouble except for one instance when he failed to make his bed.
“I have lived with regret every day,” Young told the court. “I’ve been incarcerated for 11 years and I have taken advantage of every opportunity available for me in prison to better myself. I’m no longer the same person I used to be. First Corinthians, Chapter 13, Verse 11 says, ‘When I was a child, I thought as a child. … When I became a man, I put away all childish things.’ I want to turn around and apologize to my victim for what I did.”
At the same time, Young’s victims testified to the harm and trauma they’d endured. “As much as I know [Young] wants to be released, I’m not ready to have him walking around my neighborhood,” said one woman.
Sleet was the judge hearing the case. He congratulated Young on his diploma and rehabilitation efforts and said his imprisonment was “appropriate and effective.”
But Sleet didn’t buy Young’s version that the crimes were the dealer’s fault. Releasing him, said Sleet, “would be an award, a gift that you will not get from this court.” Then he brought down the gavel: “You will not get it, sir, because you do not deserve it. I heard your statement. I believe that you have some remorse. I believe that you’ve been rehabilitated. But I’m listening to these victims, sir, and I do not believe that this court should rely on your prison conduct thus far. Sir, this is about personal responsibility and accountability.”
Sleet did end the life sentences but sentenced Young to 30 years in prison, with credit for time served, and 10 years of probation.
The sentence sparked outrage and astonishment, not least on the part of Young: “I had showed from the time I’m 14 years old all the way to the time I’m 26 I have matured and everything,” he said. “I thought that that would mean something. He just basically told me that don’t mean nothing”—and after enduring the worst that prisons had to offer, “I survived through all that, and he like, ‘That don’t mean nothing. You showed that you rehabilitated, but I’m still gonna send you to this.’”
Sleet’s sentence set off a barrage of criticism, which can still be found online, mostly denouncing him for a lack of compassion. The Young case and Sleet’s sentence prompted a 1-hour Public Broadcasting Service documentary called 15 to Life, about the case.
In another August 2020 case that was the subject of public attention, Sleet wrote the decision rejecting the arguments of a pregnant teenaged girl, identified as Jane Doe, with Guatemalan parents, who sought an exemption from the Florida law requiring minors to inform parents of plans to have an abortion.
The judgment in August 2020 was the first after the law was passed. The girl was 14 when she became pregnant by her 17-year-old boyfriend. A district court in Hillsborough County ruled that she was not entitled to an exemption and Sleet and the appellate court agreed.
“Although she made decent grades in school, her answers to the questioning of counsel and the trial court were vague, and our review of her testimony supports the trial court’s finding that she was unable to articulate her understanding of the procedure, the medical risks involved, and the long- and short-term consequences of her decision,” said the decision, written by Sleet and joined by two other judges. “Furthermore, there is nothing in the record to refute the trial court’s assessment of her demeanor as ‘present(ing) as a very young, immature woman,’ and we must take that assessment into consideration. … Based on this record, Doe did not meet her burden of establishing by clear and convincing evidence that she possesses sufficient maturity to make the decision to terminate her pregnancy without parental consent.”
Analysis: Sleet is an accomplished jurist who does not seem to temper justice with mercy.
Second Court of Appeals Judge Andrea Teves Smith
Born in New Brunswick, Canada, in 1969, Andrea Teves Smith grew up in Bradenton, Fla.
She received her Bachelor of Science degree in business administration from the University of Florida in 1991. In 1994, she earned her juris doctor from Stetson University College of Law, according to her official biography.
After law school she joined the private practice of Peterson & Myers, PA in Lakeland and worked for 19 years, chiefly dealing with business law. In June 2013 she was appointed to the Tenth Judicial Circuit Court by Gov. Rick Scott and then retained in the election of 2014. She served over five years in the felony, family and civil divisions.
On January 7, 2019, Scott appointed her to the Second District Court of Appeal.
Smith drew attention in 2018 when, despite little criminal law experience, she was assigned to oversee the second-degree murder trial of Michael Dunn, a former Lakeland city commissioner who shot and killed an alleged shoplifter. However, she went to the Second District before the trial. Nonetheless, circuit court Chief Judge Donald Jacobsen characterized her as “a very good courtroom manager and a good judge” before she changed courts.
Among the members of the Florida Bar Association, 80 percent of those with considerable knowledge of her work recommended her retention along with 84 percent of those with limited familiarity with her.
Analysis: There are no public indications of ideological or political partisanship by Judge Andrea Teves Smith and her reviews are favorable.
It was July, 2018 when Maureen Porras, an immigration attorney, went with a client to the office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Miramar, Florida.
The client was a Nicaraguan immigrant father of two young children, married to an American citizen with medical conditions. As required, he periodically checked in with ICE. He had been informed that he was subject to deportation but wanted to request a humanitarian stay because of his wife’s condition, which was why Porras was with him that day.
Porras and the client met with the ICE agents, who were surprised to see an attorney there.
“I started to speak on his behalf,” she recalled to The Paradise Progressive. “They asked to take him to another room for questioning without counsel. I knew that if he went through that door alone, I would never see him again and he was going to be deported.”
Porras objected; she was going to be with him no matter what happened. Five uniformed ICE officers surrounded her. A supervisor was summoned. The atmosphere was grim and the officers demanding. At that time ICE was reputed to have physically abused attorneys.
But Porras persisted. “I refused to leave,” she recalled. “I caused a real scene. I felt the fear and the intimidation that immigrants are now facing. I knew that I had to stand up for my client. If I, as an attorney, couldn’t stand up for them, then who would? That experience, where you’re vulnerable, really made it clear that we need a change.”
Ultimately, they both left the ICE office together. Porras won a motion to reopen his case and it’s currently active before the immigration court—with a final hearing scheduled for 2022.
Porras called the incident “one of the most defining moments of my life.” It inspired her to run for the Florida House in the 105th District—to make the changes she says are needed.
The 105th District
The 105th stretches almost completely across the southern part of Florida. If it was mapped demographically, it would look like a barbell: population centers in the west (Naples Manor, Golden Gate and Lely Resort) then a long stretch of Everglades and population centers in the east (Miramar, Doral, Sweetwater and The Hammocks). It includes pieces of Collier, Miami Dade and just a bit of Broward counties and is mostly bounded on the north by the Alligator Alley portion of Interstate 75.
Based on the 2010 Census, the population of 157,369 was mostly Hispanic (69 percent) with a median age of 35 years and split evenly between men and women.
For the last two years, the 105th has been represented in Tallahassee by Ana Maria Rodriguez, a Republican who is now running for state Senate in the 35th Senate District.
Running against Porras is David Borrero, who describes himself as a “conservative Republican,” and serves as a commissioner of the city of Sweetwater.
Porras and her husband Caleb Johnston, a Florida state’s attorney, live in Doral on the east side of the district. While it’s a long trip from one end of the 105th to the other, Porras travels it at least twice a week to meet with voters and political groups.
“We’ve put in a lot of work in Collier County,” she says.
An American journey
Porras, who will be 32 years old on Oct. 23, was born in Managua, Nicaragua. Her mother left for the United States when Porras was 7 months old. Maureen followed when she was 7 years old. She received her US citizenship in 2008.
She attended public schools, which she says gave her a great appreciation for public education and made her a strong supporter of the institution. Indeed, she lists support for public education as a top issue.
“We have to support funding for public education and stop diverting money into charter schools,” she says. “My opponent proposes expanding charter schools.”
She graduated from Florida International University in Miami with a Bachelor degree in political science in 2010, graduating cum laude. She then earned her Juris Doctor degree from the Florida Coastal School of Law in 2014 and passed the Florida Bar the same year. While in law school, she worked in the Human and Immigrant Rights Clinic. There, she represented clients before the US Citizenship and Immigration Services agency and the Immigration Court. She was also president of the Immigration Law Society.
It was her immigration work that inspired her run for office. “I’m running to bring a voice to issues and people who are often neglected and forgotten,” she says.
Her platform could be characterized as mainstream progressive. On her website she lists support for public education, criminal justice reform, environmental protection, reproductive rights and immigrant protection as her top issues in that order.
In Tallahassee she says she’ll work to fix the broken unemployment benefits system.
When it comes to dealing with coronavirus, Porras says she would have supported calling a special session, which Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) opposed. She favors help to small businesses hurt by the pandemic and “making sure that loans and funds are spread equally across the state – not just in the governor’s backyard.” She characterizes DeSantis’ performance as “poor” given his lack of transparency in reporting COVID-19 infection rates, his failure to enforce public safety measures like mask wearing and social distancing and his early dismissal of the dangers of the virus.
As Porras campaigns around the district, she says she’s finding that her Nicaraguan origins are a considerable advantage. Sweetwater has the highest population of Nicaraguan-Americans in the country. “I’m making inroads with the Nicaraguan community,” she says. “I believe I would be the first Democratic Nicaraguan-American official elected to office.”
But she’s reaching out across the board, well beyond her ethnic community. “Most of the registered voters are independents. I’m not just reaching out to registered Republicans and Democrats; I’m reaching out to independents. You really do have to persuade them and I’m making progress.”
And she adds: “We have a good chance to win here.”